Unraveling the Mystery of Disease
We live in a society that’s riddled with disease. Looking for cures, our doctors diagnose us, give what ails us a name, and put us on drugs to make the problems go away. Unfortunately, all too often, that’s like dealing with a car that has black smoke spewing from its exhaust system by trying to fix the tailpipe. Not until you examine the car’s inner workings can you hope to figure out what’s causing the exhaust problem and go on from there to solve it. More often than not, a basic tune-up is what’s needed.
With pets, the distance between symptoms and true causes is often harder to trace than with cars—or with people. Pets can’t answer questions that might produce clues. Often with a pet, all you have are signs. Perhaps your pet is lethargic. Or his coat is dull and matted, or his skin is scaly, or reddened and sore, or itchy. His eyes may be cloudy or reddened, his nose running, or his breath foul-smelling. Maybe he’s stopped eating, or has intestinal gas. Perhaps he has diarrhea or a discolored stool; perhaps he’s started urinating more often or in the house for the first time. These are the signs leading owners to conclude that their pets must “have something wrong.” Pets can’t tell you they have headaches or stomachaches; they can’t say they’re feeling feverish or generally punk, or that they remember eating something suspiciously odd-tasting yesterday in the woods.
An animal’s inability to say what he’s feeling exacerbates the tendency of modern medicine to focus on the immediate problem and treat that, as fast as possible, typically with drugs, or surgery, or both. A human patient with a flu may report he’s nauseous, he has a fever and chills, perhaps diarrhea, and he looks pale. Chances are, he’ll be given the oldest advice in the book: rest easy, drink plenty of fluids, maybe take some vitamin C, and, if need be, call back in a couple of days. Unless he feels worse, he’ll recover without drugs. An animal presented to a veterinarian with those symptoms will be considered a more serious case, perhaps even an emergency. Given a choice, the animal would go off to recover on his own in isolation. In a conventional veterinary clinic, he’ll be given antibiotics for his fever. For the nausea, he may well be subjected to a series of X rays, even sometimes in conjunction with having barium or some other contrast medium “forced” down his mouth to see why he’s vomiting. If there’s a skin irritation involved, he’ll be given some form of cortisone, too. For a pet, prescribing drugs suggests a certainty of diagnosis and response reassuring to veterinarian and owner alike. But if drugs are the easiest answer, promising direct and immediate action, they may not be the correct answer. They may fail to address the underlying cause of the problem.
Let’s look more carefully at those telltale signs that most commonly bring a pet in for medical attention. All seem to suggest specific ailments. Generally, trouble with a pet’s coat or skin means allergies or skin infections. Cloudy eyes could suggest hardening of the lenses, which may indicate cataracts; a nasal discharge, cough, or foul breath indicates a viral or bacterial infection. Urinary problems suggest bladder infections or stones; stool irregularity might mean anything from intestinal problems that developed because a pet ate something he shouldn’t have, to parasites or colitis. Underlying all of these symptoms or signs is the dark, lurking possibility of cancer.
Generally, a conventional veterinarian first prescribes antibiotics and/or some form of cortisone. The drugs treat the symptoms directly, and the ailments usually go away—antibiotics aren’t used the world over for nothing. The problem may not return. More likely, however, it will, either in the exact way it did before, or in another, more insidious, form.
This is because drugs are essentially suppressive mechanisms. Typically, they suppress the symptoms of ill health that make you feel sick, rather than grapple with whatever might have provoked those symptoms in the first place. (Hence the enduring affection for aspirin for aches and pains, itself just a suppressive mechanism.) If the symptoms go away, you feel better. And, in fact, the body may be able to correct the underlying cause of your illness while the drug is at work on the outward signs, and restore itself to health—especially if you’ve chosen to rest easy, take lots of vitamin C, and drink lots of fluids, and so helped the body help itself. But don’t credit the drug (or the vitamin C).
A pet put on antibiotics for some unexplained illness may not be so lucky. Suppressing symptoms will make him feel better for a while, but if the underlying cause of his ill health remains untended, it will reassert itself—somehow, somewhere. Why? Because the problem isn’t an isolated one. The body’s immune system works in an integrated way to protect our health, supply us with energy, give us our strength. The system should be able to fix itself, sending help to repair damaged or diseased cells at various points. If it can’t, the problem is going to reappear elsewhere.
This is not to suggest that as a holistic veterinarian I stand back when a sick dog is brought in and do nothing, letting the body heal itself—or not. But instead of just treating the external sign—changing the tailpipe, in effect—I work to improve the dog’s whole immune system so that it can better, and perhaps more quickly, expel the toxins that made it sick in the first place. I do this with nutritional supplements; I also use homeopathic remedies, good diet, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, herbs, and several other approaches that all come under the broad umbrella of holistic, complementary, or alternative therapy. In Chapters Five and Seven, I’ll explain in detail which remedies I use with many different diseases. Here, let me just say that I’ve seen these practices work, consistently and completely, in thousands of cases during the years I’ve been in veterinary practice. And because they’re not toxic, and are noninvasive, they have virtually no adverse side effects. Indeed, many modern drugs either use or replicate some natural herb or plant as their core ingredient. It’s the synthetic chemicals that are substituted or mixed in to produce more immediate (if short-term) results which begin to cause problems.
Conventional doctors accept the notion that the body recognizes toxins and works to purge them: every day of our lives, toxins are processed by the liver and then expelled from the body via urine or feces. It’s also understood that when those systems get overwhelmed, they may not work as they should. It seems an easy enough leap to see that other channels must then be employed, and that different diseases are nothing more or less than varied efforts by the body to remove toxicity and restore itself to health. Why do so many veterinarians resist this idea? Perhaps because they weren’t taught it in school.
In fact, toxins are expelled within mucus from the nose or mouth, within tears or gummy matter from the eyes, or within wax from the ears. There’s a basic logic here: the body has orifices through which the immune system can do its work. If the toxins are too far from one of those routes, they come up through the skin, as inflammations of one kind or another. What is a pimple? Nothing more than an example of detoxification. The process may not be pretty, but it’s entirely natural and healthful. In many cases, if left alone, the body will finish the task of detoxifying itself, then heal the discomfitted site through which the toxins were expelled. With more severe cases, internal support will be needed to assist the process. That, in essence, is what holistic medicine does.
If, on the other hand, toxicity is suppressed, it will fester and reappear elsewhere in the body as some other disease or medical condition, likely more toxic than before, with a new name bestowed upon it to make it seem distinct. Not until the immune system succeeds in purging it will health return.
In the introduction, I said that cancer is the ultimate manifestation of ill health. Another way to put it is that many cancers are typically an extreme result of toxicity trapped within the body. Unable to purge that toxicity by any of the usual means, the body’s immune system finally surrenders: the rebels take the garrison and begin to loot and plunder the cells with a violence the body cannot control.
When a pet is diagnosed with cancer, typically no cause will be given for how this chaos of the cells evolved, or why. No link will be made between the cancer and a pet’s history of ill health—let alone its treatment. In pets, as in people, cancer is regarded as a random, inexplicable curse, coming out of nowhere. In Chapter Eight, I’ll discuss at length my experience in treating cancer in pets, and my view that cancer arises in part from lesser stages of ill health; what’s important to understand here are the fundamentals of how conventional and alternative medicine perceive—and treat—the disease.
When it appears in pets, cancer is usually treated by surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. I make these choices sometimes, too, but only when they’re needed to save a patient’s life. To me, a treatment as toxic as chemotherapy is like taking a shotgun to the kidnapper who’s making off with your child. You may kill the kidnapper, but you may also hurt or even kill the child. Certainly, chemotherapy rocks the immune system as it zaps disease cells. Too often, as a result, it brings short-term improvement at the expense of long-term health. Sometimes the improvement justifies the assault. Against a ravaged immune system, however, the cancer often strikes back—and wins.
Treating cancer with alternative therapies doesn’t always work. Sometimes the cancer is too aggressive or pervasive; sometimes the pet is just too far gone. But I’ve seen alternative therapies succeed far more often than conventional ones.
“Disease is an effort of the body to eliminate waste, mucus and toxemias,” wrote Professor Arnold Ehret nearly a hundred years ago, “and this system assists Nature in the most perfect and natural way. Not the disease but the body is to be healed; it must be cleansed, freed from waste and foreign matter, from mucus and toxemias accumulated since childhood. You cannot buy health in a bottle, you cannot heal your body, that is, cleanse your system in a few days, you must make ‘compensation’ for the wrong you have done your body all during your life.”
Still all but unknown to conventional doctors, Ehret (1866–1922) was a German-born writer and lecturer whose conclusions about health, toxicity, and fasting are central to the practice of holistic medicine today, both for people and pets. His seminal works, Rational Fasting and The Mucusless Diet Healing System, might have benefited from catchier titles, but their message—that the body can be purged of its toxins and achieve a mucusless state of perfect health—seems all the more urgent in a society pervaded by toxins … and drugs. “The diet of civilization is never entirely digested and the resultant waste eliminated,” Ehret wrote. “In addition to mucus and its toxemias in the system, there are other foreign matters such as uric acid, toxins, etc., and especially drugs if ever used…. Drugs are NEVER eliminated as is the waste from foods, but are stored up in the body for decades…. Th[e]entire pipe system [of the body]is slowly constipated, especially at the place of the symptom and the digestive tract. This is the foundation of every disease!” And guess what? It applies to animals, too.
Ehret’s father was actually a veterinarian who instilled in him a keen medical curiosity. That stood him in good stead when his health began to suffer for no apparent reason. By the age of thirty-one, burdened by kidney trouble among other ailments, Ehret set off on the first of five rest cures, then consulted twenty-four doctors, only to be told that his case was hopeless and that he would soon die. Nearly bankrupt and deeply depressed, he decided to seek his own answers based on a succinct, if unproven, assumption: “that wrong eating was the cause and right eating might be the cure.”
First, Ehret tried vegetarianism, though with indifferent results. As he points out in his book, vegetarianism was all the rage in Berlin at that point (the mid-1890s), but vegetarians with their sallow complexions and lack of energy seemed no healthier than meat eaters. Then he tried a diet of nothing but fruit, initially supplemented by a pint of milk a day—fasting, in effect, for days at a time. When his health improved dramatically, he became an exuberant convert to the theory that the grape sugar in the fruit was the “essential material of human food, giving the highest efficiency and endurance, and at the same time was the best eliminator of debris and the most efficient healing agent known for the human body.” (The grape sugar wasn’t as important as he thought; it was the water, of which grapes are mostly comprised, that was so beneficial. Essentially, he was fasting.) This, in turn, led Ehret to his theory that mucus and the toxins which provoke it are the cause of all the forms of ill health which doctors call disease—the theory I’ve come to adopt in both my life and my practice as the best way to understand ill health in pets.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Ehret developed an international following of “Ehretists” dedicated to his regimen of intermittent fasting on a fruit-and-nut milk diet to cleanse the body of toxins. His own complexion glowed with brilliant health, and he radiated energy, so much so that he embarked on marathon bicycle trips and hikes, stopping only to lecture along the way. At the same time, his own fasts grew longer and longer—one lasted forty-nine days. Unfortunately, on October 9, 1922, while “enjoying a superior state of health known but to few men of present-day civilization,” as a sympathetic biographer noted, Ehret slipped on an oil-slick street in Los Angeles, fell backward, and hit his head on a curb with enough force to cause instant death. Which just goes to prove one of the key principles stated in the introduction: health isn’t everything!
Though without it, of course, everything is nothing.
In his own way, Ehret was rebelling against the essential presumption of modern science: that all things in the natural world can be rationally understood. Diseases can be analyzed, named, and codified; and drugs can be concocted sooner or later to cure them. (Science would cure his illness eventually, too, his doctors at the sanitariums had told him, just not soon enough to save him.) Ehret intuited that the body could cure itself if allowed to do so. He had no idea exactly how the body did so, but he didn’t care! About the body and its workings, in other words, he could tolerate a certain mystery, as long as he saw some results.
In holistic medicine, that sense of mystery is ingrained. I can’t tell you why an almost infinitesimal amount of a few minerals in a homeopathic remedy, when administered to a cat radically crippled with arthritis for months, can result in the cat walking almost normally in two hours when conventional medicine failed to have any beneficial effect after three months of continuous therapy. For all my conventional and alternative medical education and experience, I can surmise, but I really don’t know. What I know is that these homeopathic remedies, as well as so many other forms of complementary or alternative therapy, work. That’s enough for me—and it’s usually enough for the owners whose pets I treat. With results, they come to feel as I do: that if a society obsessed with naming and treating symptoms is getting sicker, perhaps a new perspective is in order.
A few years ago, I found a passage that touched on this point in a most unlikely place: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Crichton, of course, is a medical doctor by education and former practice, and very literate, too; one reason his books are so popular is that a reader gets fascinating science and history lessons as those thrilling plots unfold. In Jurassic Park, Crichton, in the person of Malcolm, also a doctor, observes that modern science, with all its empirical force, is only five hundred years old. It arose in part, he observes, because it seemed better than what preceded it, but also because what preceded it had failed. And now its own logic is outmoded, too.
The basic idea of science—that there was a new way to look at reality, that it was objective, that it did not depend on your beliefs or your nationality, that it was rational—that idea was fresh and exciting back then, it offered hope and promise for the future, and it swept away the old medieval system which was hundreds of years old. The medieval world of feudal politics and religious dogma and hateful superstitions fell before science. But, in truth, this was because the medieval world didn’t really work anymore. It didn’t work economically, it didn’t work intellectually, and it didn’t fit the new world that was emerging.
But now, science is the belief system that is hundreds of years old. And, like the medieval system before it, science is starting not to fit the world anymore. Science has attained so much power that its practical limitations begin to be apparent. Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it. Science can make a pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it. And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways—air and water and land—because of ungovernable science…. This much is obvious to everyone.
… And so the grand vision of science, hundreds of years old—the dream of total control—has died, in our century…. Science has always said that it may not know everything now but it will know, eventually. But now we see that isn’t true. It is an idle boast. As foolish, and as misguided, as a child who jumps off a building because he believes he can fly.
As a doctor, I deal every day with mysteries I’m sure I’ll never understand. Why did your cat get a bladder infection? When will your dog be better? How long will its recovery last? Yes, experience helps you make a better estimation. But really, who knows? No doctor knows these things. The difference is that as a holistic doctor, I celebrate the mystery, which is why I can also embrace improvements I don’t understand but which are natural and benign—and which work.
Barely in my mid-twenties, I was losing it fast to classic male-pattern baldness. My health wasn’t so great either—I had degenerative bursitis and arthritis of my left shoulder—but I was less worried about that. I loved my hair! So much so that I’d worn it shoulder-length all through vet school, which nobody else did at Cornell, even in the late 1960s. When I happened upon a book called You Are All Sanpaku, left behind in my house by a friend, I picked it up with curiosity but skepticism. The author, Sakurazawa Nyoiti, also known as George Oshawa, addressed, among many other issues, the problem of hair loss and disease in general.
As I began to read, I was riveted by the concept Oshawa called “sanpaku,” which means “three-sided.” When people die, he related, their eyeballs roll up somewhat, so that the whites of their eyeballs are not merely on either side of the iris but below it as well. In some people, however, this condition appears while they’re in ostensibly good health. This sanpaku condition is a sign of impending ill health, a foreshadowing, really, of death. When I looked in the mirror after reading about sanpaku, I was shocked: I had the condition myself.
At first, I just figured I was tired and needed more sleep. But after several days of rest, I was still sanpaku, and my arthritis pains kept getting worse despite ultrasonic therapy. The reason my doctor gave me for why I had arthritis in one shoulder was that I was getting “old.” But what sense did that make? After all, my other shoulder was also twenty-seven years old and doing fine! That was when I decided to give Oshawa’s dietary recommendations a try.
To cleanse the body and restore it to health, Oshawa recommended a macrobiotic diet consisting in large part of grains, specifically brown rice. I’d always loved eating, and as a schoolchild had earned the nickname “Porky.” As a grown-up, I was still somewhat overweight. Nervously, I embarked on the diet, looking in the mirror every time I felt my resolve start to flag. On the third day, I had a major headache—just as the book predicted. The next morning, I felt looser and healthier than I had in years. My arthritis felt better. I went to the mirror: the sanpaku was gone.
When I’d lost twenty pounds in eight days, my brother became curious about the diet. He’s a veterinarian, too—my mother liked doctors—and, also like me, tended to be overweight. The diet helped him as dramatically as it did me. One day, as we sat talking about it, we came to the simultaneous decision that we should try the diet on pets and see if it improved their health, too. “For starters,” my brother said, “why not try it with Leigh?”
Certainly we had nothing to lose. A seven-year-old golden retriever, my brother’s dog Leigh was a woeful compendium of medical disasters. He had hip dysplasia—degeneration of the hip joints—that had led to arthritis so painful he was crippled. He had allergies so severe that we had to bandage his legs to prevent him from chewing them. Plus, as he was getting old—or what we thought was old for him—his red muzzle had turned white. As conventional veterinarians, my brother and I had given Leigh regular injections of cortisone to control his symptoms; soon, we thought we’d have to put poor Leigh to sleep.
In truth, we hadn’t thought about Leigh’s diet at all. Diet wasn’t a subject that came up often in veterinary school, and when it did, it was more associated with the quantity, not the quality, of food for animals. Leigh, as a result, had been raised almost solely on Top Choice and Gaines Burgers, the semimoist burger patties that seemed so carefully prepared in their clear plastic wrapping, and felt so fresh when pulled out and put in Leigh’s bowl. Now, instead, my brother put Leigh on a diet of brown rice, spinach, and hamburger.
In days, Leigh began to walk better. Soon the bandages came off his allergy-ridden legs. Most astounding to us, Leigh’s muzzle began to grow in red again. We kept him on the brown rice diet, of course, and eventually threw out our year’s supply of Top Choice and Gaines Burgers. Leigh continued to have hip dysplasia, considered an irreversible condition. But he was no longer in pain, he walked without effort, and plainly he was infused with an energy—nothing less than a life force—that we’d never have imagined we’d see in him again.
So disease might be combated more effectively with the right diet than with the right drugs! For my brother and me, this was a turning point in our practice. Along with it came the recognition that while Leigh was still diseased, he wasn’t dis-eased.
A recent Webster’s defines “disease” as any process that serves to “interrupt or impair any or all of the natural and regular functions of an organ in the body; to afflict with pain or sickness.” At the same time, the dictionary includes an obsolete definition of disease as “uneasiness; distress.” What a fascinating evolution in meaning! The modern definition embodies the attitude of conventional medicine that all sickness is disease, and contains the implication that all disease must be wiped out before a person can be deemed healthy. The old definition is underscored by the word’s root meaning: a disease is anything that diseases the body. So if a condition like hip dysplasia can be kept from producing painful symptoms by the right diet, and an animal can go on to live a relatively long, easeful life, is it diseased? We thought not, and Leigh’s subsequent experience confirmed our new view. Rambunctious enough to wander off for days at a time to neighboring towns, alert enough to return, Leigh remained relatively disease-free until the day he died.
At seventeen and a half.
At that time, the medical establishment still regarded acupuncture with wariness as a pain reliever for people. As an approach to veterinary care, the very mention of it stirred horror in my colleagues—particularly the seven with whom my brother and I had just begun a collective practice in the New York suburb of Mount Kisco.
Early into that ill-fated venture, one of my new partners was treating a weimaraner who had had a seizure in the middle of the night. The dog was given a lot of Valium and then slipped into a coma. In the Veterinary Hospital for Special Services, but still in the coma one week later, the dog was about to be put to sleep. By now I had earned my certification in veterinary acupuncture, so I suggested trying acupuncture on the dog as a last resort. The idea was met with scornful laughter. “Anyway,” I was told, “you’re not the attending doctor, you’d have to get permission.” As much out of irritation as anything else, I called the hospital and spoke to the attending veterinarian, who, as it happened, had had acupuncture himself and was bullish about it. The veterinarian called the owners, who gave their permission reluctantly, having no expectation that it would work but understanding that their pet’s case appeared to be hopeless. And so I went over with my needles to give it a try.
Most of us now know that acupuncture, which predates modern science by thousands of years, is the Chinese practice of gently inserting fine needles into the body to relieve pain or certain disease conditions. Less known is the idea behind it: that the body is a network of linked energy channels, like interconnected waterways, and that the needles, serving as conductors, effectively loosen the dam that constricts the flow. To treat the weimaraner, I chose six points along its energy-flow network indicated for neurological problems. I put the first five needles into their respective points and got no response. The sixth was at a point just above the dog’s paw. I inserted it, turned it—and the dog woke up! I was stunned. So were the attending veterinary technicians, who backed off as if they’d just witnessed witchcraft. The next day, when I got to the sixth point, the dog sat up and started barking.
Over the next three weeks, I put the dog on a basic macrobiotic diet that I had learned about while studying acupuncture from Dr. Norman Ralston, considered by many to be the grandfather of holistic veterinary medicine. Sure enough, the dog started to detoxify. I witnessed for the first time what I would later recognize as a healing crisis: a seeming turn for the worse that conventional veterinarians would identify as disease and try to suppress, but which was actually a purging of toxins as the body worked to recover its health. The dog’s coat turned from gray to tan, then started to fall out in clumps. Whoever touched the dog broke out in a rash, including me. Soon enough, however, the dog’s chronic ear problems vanished and he began to grow a beautiful new coat of soft gray puppy hair. The healing crisis was over, the toxins expelled, and the dog was rejuvenated.
No one has demonstrated in a scientific way exactly how and why acupuncture works. Nor did I know how to analyze the weimaraner’s healing crisis; indeed, I didn’t know while it was occurring how it would end. But the fact that what I’d witnessed was, in the eyes of modern medical science, a mystery, didn’t bother me at all. It worked. Indeed, the mystery of it fascinated and awed me: the body, I realized, knows far more about how to take care of itself than modern science can hope to know. Back at our Veterinary Hospital for Special Services weeks later, though, the head of medicine took a cynical view of how things had turned out. The dog, he declared, had undergone “spontaneous remission” of a stroke. Clearly, the veterinarian added, the dog would have experienced this same remission without treatment.
“If that’s true,” I asked him, “then why did you recommend euthanasia?”
Along with an appreciation of mystery, the weimaraner case taught me the importance of patience. Drugs are expected to work fast; if they don’t, others are quickly tried. Then, if there’s no response, a case is declared “hopeless” and out comes the call for euthanasia. Patients aren’t given enough of a chance to heal, and a worsening condition may not be recognized as the purging that leads to health. That’s why, whenever I get a “hopeless” case, the first thing I do is to try to take a pet off drugs as I put him on alternative therapies. And then I wait—for the pet to start healing himself. This is not to say that drugs are bad. They do have their role in society and, used at a minimum, in my practice. But our goal should be to wean our patients from them as soon as possible, and let true health be our best protection against disease.
Viewing health and illness as a function of toxicity, appreciating the importance of diet, and opening oneself to the good that holistic medicine can do, mysterious as it may be—these are the first steps toward a whole new way of caring for your pet.